Inmate assaults at Wilkinson Road jail rise sharply

The number of assaults by inmates against staff at Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre more than doubled last year, part of a rise in violence at jails across B.C., government statistics show.

The Public Safety Ministry reports that assaults jumped to 15 from six at the Wilkinson Road jail — the highest level at any point in the past five years. Inmate-on-inmate assaults rose to 95 from 87 and are up nearly 50 per cent since 2011.

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The B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union, which represents corrections officers in jails, blames overcrowding and understaffing for the rise in violence.

The Wilkinson Road jail has 207 cells, but the government says the average daily inmate count in 2015-16 was 308, which means that about half the cells have two inmates and the other half have one.

“It’s no secret that there is a direct correlation between counts and violence,” said Dean Purdy, union vice-president. “We’re seeing it, and we’ve seen it, over the last 10 years where we’ve kept statistics.”

The province-wide statistics show that total inmate assaults on staff at nine B.C. jails rose 39 per cent last year — going to 99 from 71, while overall incidents of violence, including inmate-on-inmate assaults climbed 42 per cent to 1,394 from 978.

The ministry uses the term assault to describe incidents that result in some degree of intentional physical contact or force, such as pushing, hitting, spitting, scratching or throwing items.

The government said Monday that B.C.’s nine jails are operating at 134 per cent capacity, which means about one-third of the cells have two inmates and the rest have one.

The union has been pushing the province to add a second officer to living units in order to improve both inmate and staff safety. The Wilkinson Road jail currently has one officer monitoring up to 40 inmates per living unit, Purdy said.

“Overcrowding’s a problem, but not as big an issue as understaffing is,” he said. “We can handle the number of inmates if we have the right number of staff.”

Solicitor General Mike Morris attributes the rise in violence to the expansion of provincial jails. The government added 216 cells at Surrey Pretrial Service Centre, doubling the jail’s capacity in 2014.

The Alouette Correctional Centre for Women added 104 new cells in 2013. “We’ve had a dramatic increase in the number of cells that we have as well, so we’re accommodating hundreds more prisoners than we used to,” Morris said.

He said jails also house more inmates with gang affiliations than in the past. “We’ve got a different element in there now as well with the gang violence that we’ve had across British Columbia and across the country, actually,” he said.

Morris recently met with union officials and promised to monitor the situation after the new 378-cell Okanagan Correctional Centre near Oliver opens later this year.

“Let’s give it some time to see whether the system that we have in place — the distribution of inmates throughout British Columbia — will have an impact on the number of cases that are reported,” he said.

Purdy said that’s too long to wait when corrections officers are dealing with growing numbers of inmates with mental-health and addictions issues. “We worry that by delaying it, someone is going to pay the ultimate price, and that’s losing their life through one of these violent assaults,” Purdy said.

He said officers have been punched in the face, beaten and had feces and urine thrown at them. “It’s really a wide gamut of different assaults, but any assault is too much in our books.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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